Carving a Life

Tiny - Posted on 12 September 2011

A recent op-ed piece asked: Are jobs obsolete?  To those who are unemployed, this question is a luxury.  There are those who, deep down, ask this question—fleeting as it arrives on our mental landscape—and ponder the existence of life without “a job”.  We look at the unemployment numbers, we see images of people in lines—multitudes who have been out of work in the large cities and in the not-so large cities.   Black unemployment is twice that of whites—and factoring in the sub-prime mortgage crisis—most black people view the current climate as a depression rather than a recession.   We see unemployment among black youth ages 16-24 at a staggering 31%.  Resumes are printed, job workshops are scheduled and we scan the online and offline sources—as well as our personal circles--for job leads, anything.  Meanwhile, our people are more demoralized, depressed, sick and anxiety-ridden than ever.


Many of our cultural and community educators and activists—such as Luis J. Rodriguez ( and Nelson Peery (, among others—who have labored in the factories and in the military industrial complex—have seen the shift from manufacturing to white collar, finance based jobs.  Industrial jobs that once provided decent wages have been sent overseas or have been diminished by corporate greed in collusion with government/lobbyists to undermine and break unions.


The CNN op-ed cited the rise of digital technology and its “Slow but steady replacement of working humans” as the cause of the problems plaguing the US Postal Service.  People are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than they did 4 years ago.  According to the op ed’s author, the real culprit is email and other net-enabled means of communication such as electronic bill payment.  Other examples of jobs lost to non-homo sapiens are Google self-driving automobiles--rendering taxi drivers obsolete, EZ passes replacing toll-takers and supermarket’s use of automated check stands.  The logical progression of this process was thought to be that the replaced workers would be trained to fix or program the robots that have replaced them.  But the people needed to make the robots are not as many as the people they replace. 


Henry Miller once wrote that making a living has very little to do with living.  Perhaps what should be asked is how we make a life?  The stuff that is made in our society is, presumably, to provide us the essentials—and often times non-essentials—of life and/or a standard of living that will make us comfortable.  But as humans are increasingly taken out of the production equation, where does that leave us?  With no job, we have no money—the bottom falls out—and the effects reverberate through our lives—shattering our health, relationships, self-esteem, and ultimately, the future of our children.  Is it a job that we really need when most of what we need—food, shelter, health care—given the country’s productivity—could be provided to the entire population with just a “fraction of us actually working”?  As the op-ed’s author stated, “Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff, it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and “prove” that they deserve this stuff.  I have always admired the person with nothing to prove.


One such person with nothing to prove is my father James Robles (  He worked much of his life as a janitor.  He always arrived to work on time, always did a good job.  He started his own janitorial business eventually, where I, as his sole employee, was taught the virtues of never doing a half assed job (his preferred method of spreading this particular gospel was via putting a well placed “foot in my ass"—hence my role as “sole” employee”—which I still, on occasion, feel to this day). 


After living in San Francisco most of his life (born and raised), he moved the family to Hawaii 2 decades ago.  I left shortly after high school graduation; he stayed to raise my brother and sister along with his wife.  It is not easy to make it in Hawaii, the cost of living is high and housing is tighter than ever due to the influx of people from the so-called mainland.  He still works—now as a maintenance man in a condo on Waikiki.  His work is sometimes strenuous but not overly so.  He leaves the heavy lifting for the young guys.


In his moments of pause, he looks out at the ocean, its movement, its blueness.  He reflects on time and life and how it passes and moves forwards and backwards.  A part of him never fully accepted capitalism.  As a family, we ate at McDonalds and drank coke with a smile; but my father was never disposable, his mind was not a blank slate for the branding of corporations—nor was his heart.


He sought out the indigenous Filipino art of Eskrima—a beautiful art which Filipinos developed to defend their land from colonizers and invaders.  He learned the art from elders on the islands.  One elder asked, “Why should I teach you this art?”  My father replied, “This is my people’s art, I have a right to learn it”.  It turned out the elder had waited years to hear those words.  The art is very old and is performed in styles using sticks, knives and open hand techniques.  He was a student then a teacher.  He visited the Philippines for the first time—an ancestral homecoming--a few years back with his students to complete in a world Eskrima tournament.  The team did well, garnering medals in multiple categories. 


My father’s life is located in the bamboo forests of Hawaii.  The sticks that he holds, that he honors in his martial art provide the sounds that give his life meaning, gives it life. The sticks are an extension of him—his ribs, his limbs—growing out of the soil of resistance to the colonization of his culture, his history, his mind.  My father has carved the poetry of his life onto his skin which is the skin of wood.  He finds pieces of wood, running his hands over each unique piece—burning designs onto each.  He spends hours carving faces—forming noses, eyes, mouths—that ultimately speak the story of his life.  He sends these pieces of art to his family. 


I run my fingers across the faces, each detail is unique, giving honor to our ancestral face, our ancestral blood.   Each mark and gap carved into the wood is a story, a memory that cannot be erased.  The carvings are evidence of a life lived in resistance, in poetry, in oneness with nature.


Carving is his life’s work—greater than a job or vocation—for he does it out of sheer love.  And in that love he shares it with our family and friends—and with the world.


I see a world where we’re not defined by a job.  A job is not who you and I are.  My father has written his own life in the faces, the skin of wood by carving his own life into it.  He’s still carving.


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